Tuesday, 28 July 2009

BBC Natural History Archive launched

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Following the recent launches of Earth News and Out of the Wild the BBC Natural History Unit have just launch the archive clip section of 'Earth'. This provides unprecedented access to the BBC's natural history assets combines with 3rd party data, to create media-rich pages about species, behaviour and habitat and forms the foundation of the new Nature offering on bbc.co.uk.

There aren't yet any 'homepages' to aid navigation, but if you fancy a browse here are some entry level pages to showcase the different areas of interest:

Still to come on the archive section are radio programmes, plants, season, timelapse and other special capture pages and lots more behaviour..

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Daroji - Kingdom of the Sloth Bear

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Today I visited the Daroji Sloth Bear sanctuary in central south India. This 5000 hectre reserve has the highest density of wild sloth bears anywhere on earth.

Honey for the Bears

My mind is immediately transported to the American wild west - big sky and big landscapes, strewn with huge wind sculptured sandstone blocks. If Star Trek had been produced in India then this would have been the setting. Dry desert was certainly a relief from our travels in the monsoon drenched mountains. This was the rain-shadow, the mountains themselves block the monsoon winds from reaching this far east. 

At the heart of the sanctuary are six giant sandstone tors, the location of sloth bear dens and right in the midst of them is a monolithic sandstone platform - an arena where the park wardens generously scatter honey. This honey attracts bears to the exposed outcrop and the bears attract tourists to a viewing tower a mile away. It may controversial to feed otherwise 'wild' bears but as the park warden, Mr Ravindranath told me 'This is all for conservation and preservation of the sanctuary and the bears'. 

The public pay to protect the bears habitat and the bears don't really complain about having honey on tap. Mr Ravindranath wears his military looking uniform with pride and basks in the pride of being a one man operation caretaking this highly regarded reserve. 'We have over a 120 bears here' he proudly boasts 'many of which have been rescued from other areas and introduced to the sanctuary'. 'it's a safe haven working closely with the local people to ensure it's future'.

The sticky honey glinted in the sunshine, a treasure that beckons Sloth Bears to stumble out of the wilderness every afternoon for their public appearance. We found a convenient bush a few metres from the platform, and parked our jeep behind it. Over the course of a few hours we saw mongoose, peacock and painted spur fowl all eager for their share of the honey. Five-lined squirrels somersaulted between boulders to get to the goods before anyone else.

Ruddy Mongoose grabbing a lick of honey

The Sloth Bears Waddles

In the distance we saw a tuft of black hair appear behind a boulder. The fidgeting squirrels and mongooses paused, looked up, and then scurried away. Bobbing up and down the dark tuft came closer until its owner waddled into view. Our first sloth bear, a young male, hungry for honey. As he walked his fluffy backside swayed like a big furry John Wayne. He looked satisfied as he approached a nice patch of honey. Adjusting his posture and almost crossing his legs, he hunched over to crinkle his soft snout up against the ground - like a pig snorting in a trough.  When he was finished with one patch he stood up and waddled across to another.  Not a care in the world the bear was completely oblivious to our presence.

Sloth Bears have really poor eye sight and can see little further than 10 metres, so as long as we remained still and silent we would be able to observe the bears in all their slobbering glory. Occassionally our young male surfaced for a breather, raising his nose and opening his mouth like a panting dog. He was tasting the air and I wondered if he could detect the strangers in his midst. If he could then he must have decided that he had more important matters to attend to and chowed back down. 

Hoover Mouth

While he sniffed directly in my direction I caught a superb view of his strange dentures. Unlike other bears sloth bears lack threatening canines and instead have a mouth like a pensioner - almost barren of teeth. This is an adaptation for getting closer to food, such as their favourite wild delicacy - termites. Their four-inch claws rip open the mound, they shove their muzzle in, and then suck like a hoover. The sounds can be heard from hundreds of metres away. This bear was entertaining us with a range of sounds that I've only ever heard before in a gents loo - and like a gents loo a few more individuals eventually appeared and joined in the chorus.

 Sloth Bear tasting the air

Mob of Feeding Sloth Bears

Now there were four bears greedily feeding just a few metres from us. The largest male seemed to really enjoy scratching and rolling on the floor - every now and then he would back up to a boulder and comically rub his backside on it. The smallest of the four bears just wanted to play - probably a bit high on all the sugar. He lumbered over to another and unexpectadly pounced on him, bearing his teeth - it could easily be mistaken for aggression but was simply a case of play fighting. Failing to get the desired response the small bear quickly switched to another, and he continued for the best part of an hour, by which time the sugar rush had worn off and he tuckered down for more honey.

Sloth bear rubbing his backside against a boulder

False Sense of Security

Sloth bears can lull you into a false sense of security - they look so harmless, their expressions so goofy, and yet they are considered more dangerous than tigers and elephants. 'When they are cornered they strike back in self defense - using their claws and teeth as weapons' said Sammad of the Sloth Bear rescue centre. 'Most dangerous encounters happen when you suddenly run into one and surprise it - because their eyesight is so poor they don't realise until you're right up close.' 

Sammad has rescued more than seventy bears in the past ten years. Often he gets a call from a panicked villager who has found a bear rummaging through his house, or has become trapped in barbed wire. On one occassion a confused bear found himself in the centre of a village and chased a woman into a school - the fast action of one man got the children out and trapped the bear inside. 'the only imjury on that occasion was a gouge to the mans face. It could have been more serious' he admits 'It was a huge difficult operation to safely rescue him - he's now doing well having been moved to Daroji'. 'This sort of thing was happening more and more' Sammad told me reflecting on 10 years of change 'as farmers encroached onto the bears natural territorytheirs would be problems'. This is why the sanctuary was setup - simpy to give bears somewhere to live in peace.

Dancing Bears

Most of the sloth bears Sammad has rescued have been victims of bear dancing - a traditional livelihood which has been practiced for centuries but which has been illegal since the wildlife protection act of 1972.

Bear poachers wait outside a den for the mother to leave in search of food, before swooping in to grab and bag the young cubs. They are sold for less than 30,000 rupees each (about 350 pounds) to Kollanders, the traditional bear dancing community.

'Here they begin a life of pain and discomfort.' Sammad told me, 'After a few months their canines are ripped out, their claws are clipped, males are castrated and a red hot iron is used to pierce their sensitive nuzzle through which a coarse rope is threaded.' it is the pain of pulling on this rope that makes them dance as they are dragged from village to village and made to perform. All the while enduring severe pain. 'they are severly malnurished and are only given the very poorest food to survive on' says Sammad with a tear in his eye 'when we rescue them they are in really bad shape'.

An awareness of the plight of the dancing bears amongst rural people has really helped Sammads mission. 'People might fear the bears but they also value them - they play a part in Hindu mythology and are considered sacred.'  According to local lore this part of India is their empire and it is where the king of the sloth bears married the daughter of one of the gods.

It's easy to victimise the Kollanders but we should remember that they have been dancing sloth bears for generations - a profession which is passed from father to son. It's a difficult chain to break but rather than criminalise individuals, the government now offer them a package of aid to help change to a more respectable livelihood. Thanks to this united effort Sammad is pleased to tell me that 'soon the dancing bear profession will be over for good'.

The rescued bears can never be released back into the wild, instead they live out their days at one of the four sloth bear rescue centres. My next visit would be to one of these centres based just outside of Bangalore.

Dancing bear with rope through his muzzle. Photograph by Troy Snow (used with permission)

Sent from my iPhone

Naming the Sloth Bear

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A battered wooden crate arrived in London for Mr Shaw, it was marked 'Urgent Attention'. Shaw, a gentleman naturalist, excitedly opened the crate and pulled out a thick black shaggy fur - it was slightly damp and smelling of mould. Spreading it on a large oak table in the centre of his crowded study, he ran his hands through the knotted reflecting on it's similarity to the overgrown coat of a dog. Next he came across the animals long soft tubular snout, immediately seeing the resemblance to another peculiar creature from South America which has recently been named as the anteater. But this animal was much larger and it's skin and dentition much different. Like the anteater however Its eyes were tiny and recessed suggesting an animal with poor vision. Shaw already had his suspicions on where to place this creature in the animal classification system but what convinced him so completely were the huge 4inch curved claws protruding from each of it's short limbs. Sloths were already known from South America and this was obviously some sort of giant form - like other sloths it used these inward pointing claws to hang from trees. The year was 1790 and Shaw proudly announced this new species naming it Bradypus pentadactylus - the 5 fingered sloth.

It later transpired that the crate Shaw had recieved originated in India and not South America at all. A mix up which created the curious beginning of the scientific identification of the Indian Honey Bear - The Sloth Bear.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Wildest Dreams

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7.30pm, 22nd July, BBC 1
What do you get when you cross BBC Natural History with the reality TV show the apprentice? The answer: Wildest Dreams
Wildlife film-making is one of the most difficult jobs on earth. Thousands want to do it, but few get the chance. For the first time, the BBC has chosen nine people with ordinary jobs to see if one of them has what it takes to become a wildlife film-maker. Presented by Nick Knowles, Wildest Dreams puts them through their paces in one of the natural world's greatest arenas - Africa - with the ultimate prize for just one of them: a job at the BBC's prestigious Natural History Unit. Each week the wildlife enthusiasts are given a different task, judged by wildlife film-maker, James Honeyborne. For one individual their dream is shattered when they are sent home.

See a preview on YouTube

Executive Producers: Fiona Pitcher & Martyn Smith
Series Producer: Spencer Kelly
Series Wildlife Expert: James Honeyborne

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Tiger Tracking in BR Hills, South India

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15th July 2009
Mandanna climbed out of the jeep sniffed the air along the side of the road, stopped and looked down. To me he had ceased his investigation above what could have been a tyre mark on the verge. To Mandanna however, one of South India's top Tiger trackers, this was a sure sign that Panthera tigris had passed this way. With a record of over 50 sightings in the past two years I wasn't going to question anything.

He picked a clump of grass and offered it to me for a whiff. 'Tiger pee' he said in his softly Spoken English. I couldn't smell anything but Mandy, as his friends call him, assured me that this was it. 'it must be about a week old' 'if it was fresh you could smell it from here' he said standing back several yards. The 'tyre' prints were, as Mandy explained, a sign of Tiger prowess - 'this was probably a male and this, it's paw mark'. I could now make out the deep sweeping motion of a disturbingly large paw and several gauges where it's claws had sliced through the surface.

The Tiger wasn't trying to be discrete or cover up his doings, he was unceremoniously flinging it as far as possible. He was marking his territory. We walked several metres down the track and there was another one, we walked a little further still and Mandy pointed out several deep pug marks leading down the side of the verge.

Then we stumbled upon a pile of scat, tiger faeces,'several weeks old - probably a Samba deer' he said. The Samba had been reduced to a fading clump of gray hair and the scat was a mere shadow of it's former hot and steamy self. I don't think I've ever found cat poo so interesting - certainly not interesting enough to photograph it from every possible angle. This was Tiger country and things were hotting up. This track was obviously a regular latrine, a tiger toilet. I looked out into the dense forest and wondered if some large cat was sitting looking back dying for the loo and wondering what on earth we found so fascinating.

Later that day we returned with our camera traps. Anything warm blooded passing by would be caught in the action, snapped for prosperity. Mandy has camera trapped hundreds of rare mammals. Helping scientists to estimate populations of some of the more elusive forest dwellers. Civets, the shy mouse deer, the tiny slender loris, the small clawed otter, the leopard cat, and the brown mongoose amongst others. He has snapped poachers sneaking through the forests and has helped local officials to identify the culprits. But it's the Tiger that excites him the most. The stripes on a Tiger are like a fingerprint, each unique to the individual. By photographing them Mandy has been able to estimate a population of more than 40 individuals in the BR Hills Reserve and with 50 sighting it's likely that he's seen most of them personally. His eyes light up when he tells me how opening a camera trap in the morning is like tearing open a present on Christmas day. 'I always hope for a Tiger inside but anything is a treat'. I hope Santa visits in the night.

16th July 2009
Excitedly we hurried to the camera trap. I really expected my luck to be in. Afterall here I was with one of the top tiger trackers but as we flicked through the images it was false call after false call.

Something had triggered the camera alright - maybe something moving too fast to actually be photographed. Whatever it was we had a dozen or so photographs of the other side of the path. And then, finally something... Pale with dark marks. It was a Civet, a real nocturnal dweller and a real privelidge to see. But not a tiger! And as we flicked forward the only other thing we had captured was a mouse. Sadly my dreams of seeing a tiger were over for now. Mandanna showed me the magnificent images he had captured at other times on that same track. Beautiful as they were it just didn't seem to excite me in the same way. At least I can go home happy that I smelt the pee of a Wild Tiger.

Images: Camera trap images of Civet Cat and Tiger by Mandanna Dilan.

Watch 'Tiger tracking - Poo, Pee & Pugmarks!'  posted March 2009

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Tasting Kopi Luwak

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The only man in India to produce Kopi Luwak coffee is a lean, cheerie gentleman named Ganesh. I paid a visit to his 22 acre organic coffee estate, situated just outside BR Hills wildlife reserve.

Ganesh is sitting comfortably on the porch of his large airy house, staring out at a lush and well manicured garden, when I arrive. He seems very pleased to see me and invites me to join him. After a while exchanging pleasantries about my visit to India, and his trip to the UK several years ago, he turns to me, peering over the rim of his tinted glasses. 'you know I've photographed about 30 species of birds from here' he says with a passion that only avid twitchers seem to posses 'I've looked them all up on Wikipedia'. 'I've seen leopards, had a troop of elephants barge across the lawn and I've even heard Tigers growl somewhere off in the distance'. This is a man in touch with wildlife and one with a sense of humour - I immediately warm to him. He laughs as he goes on to tell me how the Elephants don't bother him anymore 'I've dug a trench all the way around - 40 feet by 40 feet'.

He waves over to his coffee plants in the distance, as neatly arranged as his garden and spreading as far as I could see. 'it's an average size estate' he says 'but I'm no connessiur' 'I do have a fondness for a very special cup though'. He's referring to Kopi Luwak, more commonly known as 'Civet Cat Coffee' - the most expensive coffee in the world. He pours the steamy black liquid into a delicate bone china cup and offers it to me.

Every December his estate is visited by a hoard of tiny palm civets. Small nocturnal mammals which look like a cross between a weasel and a small cat. They've come for the succulent red coffee fruits, selectively picking the ripest and sweetest, wolfing them down during the night. While the damage is minimal many crop producers might go to the extreme to protect their livelihood from such an invasion, yet for Ganesh, a keen Wildlife watcher, it's actually a treat. Since reading an article in National Geographic about the production of Kopi Luwak in Korea he has simply just let the Civets get on with their nocturnal gorging. On occassion he even catches them in the act and just keeps his distance observing them as they stand on their hind legs to reach the best fruit. 'It's only the fruity outer layer that their interested in' He goes on to tell me how the two coffee beans at the core of each fruit are concentrated, cleaned and processed as they pass through the civets digestive tract, eventually being dumped - usually under a coffee plant for Ganesh to find in the morning. 'All I have to do is go around popping the poop into a basket for roasting later.' he says with a grin.

It's not as disgusting as it might sound. The faeces of the Palm Civet actually resembles a healthy snack bar - packed with grain and little else - solid and compact. 'very little mess' he assures me 'although my sister won't touch it with a barge pole' he says with a laugh. What usually takes Ganesh five days of processing is achieved in one night by the Civet. No wonder he likes it. He usually collects about 5 kgs in a season, enough for about 200 cups. This is a considerable amount when you consider that only 450 kgs ever reach the world market per year, almost all from the far east. It's rareity not only brings in a high market rate - £50 a cup in Selfridges, London - but it also brings a torrent of visitors to Ganeshs door. Every one keen to give it a try. He doesn't sell it but he does enjoy the reaction.

Now it's my chance to try this much prized delicacy. Ganesh has noticed that I've been suspiciously swilling the cup in my hands for a while now. 'Go ahead it's the best cup of coffee you'll ever have' he says confidently. 'is it safe' I reply with a nervous smile looking down into the deep dark swirling liquid, he assures me that he's fighting fit after drinking hundreds of cups. I raise the cup to my nose and take a deep whiff. The aroma is sweet, rich, smooth, the usual biterness of coffee has been replaced with a subtle hint of chocolate. It's nothing spectacular but it is pleasant. As he gestures for me to continue I nervously purse me lips over the edge of the bone china and gulp...

After a moment allowing my taste buds to recoil from the expected onslaught I find them being seduced by the flavour. It is, as it smelt - rich and smooth. To me it tastes a bit nutty. As it swirls around my mouth it enchants my palette. I'm being carried away by the flavour. But then it dawns on me...

I realise that the situation has probably heightened my senses to the subtleties of coffee - the fresh air and warm company. It's not necessarily the coffee itself. Much in the way a wine tasting workshop would focus my taste on the fruitiness of various wines, my palette is momentarily fine tuned to Kopi Luwak - no wonder it tastes so good.

It's tempting to try and hype Kopi Luwak, to describe it as a life changing experience. I now realise that if I didn't know of it's peculiar processing, and if I wasn't concentrating and willing it to provide the ultimate taste sensation, Kopi Luwak probably wouldn't even raise an eyebrow. Nether-the-less Ganesh pours me another cup which I gratefully accept.

If anything Civet Cat Coffee has made me aware of a great crime. That of thoughtless chugging. Coffee is a silent friend always by my side but taken for granted. I thank Ganesh for helping to refuel an appreciation for my caffienated sidekick and as I depart his company I make a silent pledge to try and pay attention to my next cup of smooth roast.

Asian Palm Civet: Wikipedia creative commons

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Kings of the Road: Charged by an Elephants

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Only a few hours ago, whilst driving through the BR Hills reserve on the search for Tigers we encountered three elephants, two large females and a small calf, who slowly started to move towards the road and block our route. It was getting dark and we needed to pass.

Rather than startle them we switched off the engine and waited... hopefully they would return to the forest and allow us to pass. But rather than oblige us they slowly moved in our direction, lazily browsing on the vegetation as they came closer and closer. They were either oblivious to our presence or considered us of no threat - we knew that this mutual understanding could all change in the blink of an eye. The tiny calf was sandwiched between the colossal flanks of the two adults and it seemed pretty carefree as it swung its trunk around, occasionally resting its head against the side of one of its guardians. It was a real privilege to see such intimacy. As they exchanged caresses, their trunks touching and stroking each other, they were gentle giants slowly plodding towards us. We were lost in the moment, observing this beautiful scene as these magnificent animals simply went about their daily lives.

It had been almost half an hour of bliss when the largest of the two adults decided that we had pried into her family life a little too much. She moved in front of her calf and looked straight at us, showing the whites of her eyes, we could tell she was a little more than peeved. She was making it perfectly clear that it was we who was blocking her route. It was rapidly getting dark and if we retreated it was 10kms back to camp - along dangerous tracks and narrow cliff edges. My friends Kalyan and Madanna, two very experienced trackers had been close to wild elephants hundreds of times and their instinct was to hold our ground a little longer hoping that they would just move away and bypass us.

Suddenly my blood chilled. The large female made an alert call so loud the forest echoed and my bones shook. Within minutes two more elephants had appeared from within the dense vegetation. She was building an army against us. Several minutes later she called again and three more arrived. We switched the engine on and slowly started reversing. She took this as an opportunity to ensure that there was no misunderstanding as to who was king of the road. She put her large bony head down and charged. My heart stopped.

I had seen this hundreds of times in films, but here I was in an Indian forest being charged by a huge elephant. It all played out in slow motion. As my heart sank deeper I could see the elephants head slowly moving up and down with every powerful step. I simply had time to fire of one photo before I froze. She stopped less than a metre short of hitting us, a cloud of dust filled the air - we'd been lucky this time. I could hear a uniform sigh of relief. Kalyan and Mandanna admitted that they had never seen such a tour-de-force of elephant stubbornness. We turned around and drove the long way home, buzzing with adrenalin from our close encounter.

More images showing the whole event...

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Jackson Hole Film Competition Finalists Announced

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Finalists 2009

The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is pleased to announce the selection of Finalists for its 2009 Film Competition. Judges from around the world representing the Festival's Board of Directors viewed 425 films from 25 countries entered into some 750 categories, for a record number of submissions.

Considered the highest honor of the "nature and environment" film genre, the 2009
Winners will be announced at the Awards Ceremony and Gala Dinner Thursday, October 1st. Peer-judged craft categories including Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, Special Venue, Sound & Writing will be announced July 20th. Special thanks to the preliminary and peer judges who worked hard to bring us these results.

Best Animal Behavior Program
Natural Lights Films, Kudos Pictures Productions, Disneynature

Tigress Productions, Ltd, Nature/THIRTEEN, BBC

Pangolin Pictures, Nature/THIRTEEN

Best Wildlife Habitat Program
Natural Lights Films, Kudos Pictures Productions, Disneynature

Nautilus Film, Studio Hamburg GmbH Documentaries, NDR Naturfilm, Arte, ORF

BBC Natural History Unit, Animal Planet

Best Conservation Program
Evening Star Productions, Norman Star Media

Frogpondia Films

Tawak Pictures

Best People & Nature Program

National Geographic Television

Birdjail Productions

BBC Natural History Unit, Animal Planet

Oxford Scientific Films, Animal Planet

Best Limited Series
BBC Natural History Unit, Discovery, Wanda Vision

BBC Natural History Unit, Animal Planet

BBC Natural History Unit, Animal Planet

Best Children's Program
National Geographic, Paramount Vantage, Visionbox Films

The Smithsonian Women's Committee, Jennifer Grace, MSU

Center for Health and the Global Environment/Harvard Medical School, Sea
Studios Foundation, Laika/house, Funjacket Enterprises

Best Presenter-led Program
Sir David Attenborough
BBC Natural History Unit, Open University

Alan Alda
THIRTEEN, Chedd-Angier-Lewis Productions

Nick Baker
Icon Films, Animal Planet International, Five, ITV Global Entertainment

Best Short Program
BBC Natural History Unit

Save Our Seas Foundation, Saatchi & Saatchi

Ammonite, Off the Fence, CBBC, Big Squid New Media

Marian Zunz Newcomer Award
Eric Bendick, Frogpondia Films

Adrian Bailey, Road Media
National Geographic Channel, National Geographic Channels International

Lou Astbury

Best Theatrical Program
Natural Lights Films, Kudos Pictures Productions, Disneynature

BBC Natural History Unit, Disneynature, BBC Worldwide, Greenlight Media, B8
Media, Discovery Channel

Images Studio, Studio Saint Antoine, Inc., Animal Planet International,
Marathon International

Best Nonbroadcast Program
Craig Miller Productions, Inc., World Wildlife Fund

The Smithsonian Women's Committee, Jennifer Grace, MSU

The Ocean Channel

Best Earth Sciences Program
Optomen Productions, Discovery Channel

Pioneer Productions, The History Channel


ORF Universum / NHU, Burning Gold Productions, AV Dokumenta, BMUKK, BBC

Best 360 Campaign
National Geographic Television, Sea Studios Foundation

Save Our Seas Foundation

BBC Natural History Unit

Best Web Presence

www.bbc.co.uk/bigcat/BIG CAT LIVE
BBC Natural History Unit

Blue Legacy, International

Save Our Seas Foundation

Best Use of Web 2.0/New Media

Blue Legacy, International

Save Our Seas Foundation


WildEarth Media, Hancock Wildlife Foundation, The Institute for Wildlife Studies

Outstanding Achievement
Preliminary judges selected three films to be recognized for a specific
outstanding achievement in technology, innovative storytelling, use of
CGI or 3-D, in-field challenge or other extraordinary accomplishment. These
awards will be presented as part of the Awards Ceremony at the Festival on
October 1.

BBC Natural History Unit, Disneynature, BBC Worldwide, Greenlight Media, B8
Media, Discovery Channel

National Geographic Television

Animal Planet

Again, peer-judged craft categories including Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, Special Venue, Sound & Writing will be announced July 20th.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

A Tea Drinker Repents - Restoring the forest in the Western Ghats

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Fragmentation of the forest by gargantuan tea estates has had a devastating effect on the Biodiversity of the Western Ghats. What was once a vast forest teeming with the sounds of wildlife is now a silent sea of tea leaves. What little remains of the forest has been isolated as tiny pockets, islands of life clinging on to an uncertain future. At any time they could be devoured by the sprawling beast that surrounds them. Now dont get me wrong, the estates have an ethereal beauty all of their own - aesthetically enchanting to the foreign traveller, their undulations easing the eye across the landscape as mist pulses around them. They support the local economies, provide thousands of jobs and quench an international thirst for tea.

Worker collects tea leaves on a plantation Photo: Paul Williams

As you drive through the quaint tiny tea villages, and past the armies of tea pickers, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there was still plenty of forest to sustain a healthy wildlife population. But most of the 'islands' you see surrounding the estates are not rich multilayered forest at all, they are homogenous alien tumours of planted Eucalyptus - as silent as the tea estates and planted for one purpose only - to grow fast and be chopped down for fuel. So when you strip it all back all the unique mammals, birds, insects, plants, are left with are tiny ecological prisons, trapping them inside an ever decreasing world. Roads carve them up leaving rare species with the daily task of dodging traffic. Elephants, tigers, gliding squirrels, bison, lion-tailed macaques all once freely roamed. The forest depended on them and they depended on the forest. Now they depend on man.

As natural habitat is destroyed, species such as elephants are squeezed out of the forest and into plantations and conflict with humans becomes more of an issue. Photo: NCF-India.org

Species such as the Lion Tailed Macaque, one of the rarest primates in the world, find their home ever diminishing. This brings them directly into contact with humans, and vehicles. Photo: Kalyan Varma

Workers carry bag loads of tea leaves from the plantation Photo: Paul Williams

I met Sridhar & Divya Mudappa, a husband and wife team who have spent the past seven years working with the estate managers, convincing them of their ecological responsibility and turning abandoned land, deemed usless to the plantation, back into lush forest. 'It's no easy task' Sridhar tells me, 'there's not much space to work with, maybe a few hectares here and a few there but it can all make a difference to sustaining the diversity and abundance of wildlife in the area' 'we can spend years convincing a manager, insisting on their support as part of their corporate policy and then we spend years regenerating the land, but in one fell swoop it can all be reversed' 'the estate may be sold to a company with less concern for the wildlife, the trees are felled and all the hard work starts again'.

Shridar & Diya took me to their nursery and showed me row upon row of young saplings, standing neat and tidy like an army ready to do battle. Elsewhere new recruits glistened, giant seeds of all shapes and sizes had been individually planted in narrow black bags, each seed painstakingly collected from roadsides where they would otherwise have been crushed by cars. All the ingredients for a healthy rainforest seemed to be here, pre-ordained veterans.

The onset of the monsoon signals the planting season. The torrents of water blown over from the Indian ocean provide a surge of energy giving the saplings their best possible chance of survival. Now it was my turn to help so I donned my rain gear, pulled up my leech socks and prepared to repent for a lifetime of tea drinking...  

Tea prepared the local way

Mountain to Mountain - Munnar to Valparai

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Travelling through the Western Ghats you pass by a whole cross section of Indian society - people, culture, religion, as diverse as the wildlife and just as vibrant. Statues of saints stand illuminated by the roadside echoing the deep Christian beliefs that were first brought here by the Portuguese. Ornate, brightly coloured Hindu temples lie at every turning, adorned with effigies of Ganesh and Vishnu. Huge intricately painted trucks greet you with religious quotation as they almost ram you off the road. It gives me a slight sense of ease to think that the last thing I might see are the words 'Allah loves you' or 'Vishnu brings peace'.

Driving from Munnar to Valparai requires a steep descent of 2000 metres, a drive for several hours across the plains, and a rapid ascent to 1600 metres. It's a rollercoaster of a ride carefully maneouvering around the 40 hairpin bends that queze your stomach along the way. A phenomenol view greets your every turn.

As you begin this journey you leave behind the mist and goats of the grasslands, cut through the vast tea estates and sweep through high altitude forest and cascading waterfalls. Then you hit the humid zone of the plains. Here villages are coated with banana leaves, mangoes lie in huge piles by the roadside, and children run by with crude cricket bats. Huge flat fields spread out before you, framed by the distinct sillouhette of the Salihydras - The Western Ghats. From somewhere resembling the Yorkshire Dales you now find yourself in the Carribbean. 

On the plains the landscape is much drier, a result of the huge rain shadow cast by the Ghats. Palm tree plantations line your route and the air tastes salty. It reminds me of a tropical beach only we're hundreds of miles from the sea. People seem more relaxed, happier, chilled-out, maybe because the sky isn't pouring buckets. Maybe it's because my Seasonal Anxiety Disorder is alieviated and I'm seeing things with my sunny hat on! It doesn't last long. As we climb higher the Tea estates return to view and the monsoon rain pours it's tears on us like an old friend happy to see us again. 

We have arrived in Valparai.    

Baby Caecilians Eat Mum Alive & The Weirdest Frogs #LifeInColdBlood #India

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Awesome amphibians

Maybe It's no surprise that I find amphibians so fascinating - for more than two years I looked into their most bizarre and extraordinary talents for the series 'Life in Cold Blood'. My quest for the most televisual and enchanting stories took me almost immediately to the hallowed halls of the Natural History Museum in London. I had arranged to meet Mark Wilkinson, a herpetologist with an obsession for the forgotton cousin of the frog - the legless, elongated, worm-like caecilians. He and his team had recently discovered behaviour in these elusive animals that was to knock the socks of biologists around the world - and he had given me the scoop.

Flesh Eating Caecilian Babies

The intimate lives of caecilians remain mysterious, mostly hidden from view, deep beneath the soil. Although often called the sharks of the underworld they rarely provide enough excitement to sustain more than a fleeting appearance in any natural history film, and yet there we were about to make a full feature of them.
The scoop eventually led us to a Brazilian rainforest where we filmed the behavior for the very first time. You might remember the moment when the baby Caecilians yawned to reveal their shark-like dentition, a subtle clue to the tour-de-force of gastronomic proportions that was to follow.

Like something from the mind of Tim Burton these adorable youngsters tucked into the flesh of their doting mother - squirming around her as they tore strips from her flanks like she was a kebab.

A caecilian with her young, photograph by Hilary Jeffkins

It turned out, that it wasn't quite as morbid and savage as it looked. Unique to the animal kingdom the mother purposefully prepares this cuticular cuisine by enriching and thickening her skin with fats, providing nutrition for her fast growing young. This was simply the caecilian equivalent to breast feeding. The caecilians had finally found their limelight and had experienced their long awaited Attenborough moment. Amazing as it was the Caecilian is not however the amphibian that I am most fascinated by.

Screenshot from Life in Cold Blood - showing the sharp teeth of a Juvenile

The Strangest Looking Frog - The Purple Frog

While I was sniffing around the Natural History Museum for other interesting leads I was introduced to Indian herpetologist Dr Biju. He was buzzing from his latest discovery - the discovery of the Purple frog. It was an immediate Indian national treasure and an overnight celebrity. He showed me some of the first pictures taken of this odd amphibian and immediately I was enthralled. The strangest looking animal I had ever seen. Its body, an amorpheous blobby sac like a purple stress relieving ball. Four rigid limbs, not disimilar to the feet of a seal. But the most unusual feature was it's tiny head with beady black and gold eyes and a pointy pig-like nose.

Water Swollen Frogs

It's weird expression may have simply been enough to hook me but the purple frog, like most amphibians, also has a peculiar life history. It spends almost all of its life buried up to 10 feet in the soil.

Truth be known, spending a lot of time underground isn't necessarily anything to write home about. The caecilians hardly ever come to the surface either, and the 'waterholding frogs' in Australia, Southern Africa and the American deserts have made underground dwelling into an art form. Swollen with water, like balloons ready to burst, these species dig deep into the desert sands where they slowly deflate and await the next rains. One species (Notaden) buries itself with a smaller toxic frog - the small frog provides defence against any predator which might be looking to dig up a quick snack, and the fat 'waterholding frog' shares some of it's moisture.

This same 'water holding' frog also has the charming talent for capturing flies with it's sticky 'fly paper' back so that upon eating its shedded skin it has an extra layer of nutrition for desert.


Notaden cohabiting with the smaller and toxic Uperoleia. A handful of frogs dug up by an aboriginee (photos from a National Geographic article by Rachel Paltridge)

One of the most amusing examples of frog promiscuity involves the similarly sticky back of the large female Breviceps who sticks diminutive males, less than half her size, to it before dragging them down to a subterranean orgy. Aboriginee people use the various Auzzie 'water-holding' frogs as emergency thirst-quenching stations and when European naturalists started exploring the continent this local knowledge was readily shared and the frogs were discovered for science. These frogs are so eager for every drop of water that a sprinkle from a watering can is usually enough to draw them out.

Breviceps - The South African Rain Frog

Served on a bed of leaf litter

The purple frog evaded science for much longer - the fact that live in dense rainforest might help explain why they had been overlooked. New species of more extrovert frogs are constantly being discovered in Indian forests leaving plenty to distract the budding herpetologist without the need to dig around in leaf litter. Even when it does appear topside the purple frog is only out for one week a year - rather predictably at the start of the monsoon, when every other frog is vying for attention. The onset of torrential rain beckons it from its earthy bed. If you should be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time you might catch a glimpse of these otherworldly-looking blobs clawing themselves out with their paddle feet, on a mindless mission to reproduce.

The amusing thing is that with all the hype about its discovery the purple frog wasn't completely unknown afterall. While the herpetologists were chasing brightly coloured species around the subcontinent - it turns out that local people in the Western Ghats not only knew about the Purple frog but were roasting them as annual delicacies!

Pipped to the Post

Dr Biju had shared with me pretty much all there was to know about the Purple frog. I investigated whether it would be at all possible for us to be the first crew ever to film it and so I turned to every researchers best friend - 'Google', and this led me directly to the beautiful images taken by Wildlife photographer Kalyan Varma. Several phone calls later and I discovered that we had missed the boat, the frogs were out doing their stuff Icon films had pipped me to the post. They were in India filming for what would be the most Beautiful TV documentation of the wildlife of the Western Ghats - The Mountains of the Monsoon. I was dissapointed that we had missed the boat this year and our schedule wouldn't permit investing in filming the following years emergence. I had no choice but to resign my aspirations and console myself with the prospect of all the other fascinating species we were still to film for 'Life in Cold Blood'. I printed one of Kalyans photos and spent the remainder of the project with the gorky grin of the Purple Frog staring down at me - one of the few natural wonders to have missed out on their Attenborough moment.

A Second Chance

And that was that, at least until 2008 when at the Wildscreen Natural History Film festival in Bristol, Sandesh Kadur, presenter of 'Mountains of the Monsoon' introduced me to the other half of the Indian delegation - none other than photographer Kalyan Varma. A week of socialising, parties and awards ceremonies (in which Life in Cold Blood won the much coveted 'Golden Panda') and Kalyan and I hatched a plan -  to chase the monsoon, and for me to finally meet the Purple Frog. Over four weeks we were going to explore the wildlife and habitats of the Western Ghats, meet fascinating people and produce stories for a web audience.

Chasing the monsoon

So here we are half way through our adventure. We've certainly experienced the monsoon, It's rained non-stop since we got to the mountains, I've met four species of primate, located a pair of frogmouths, watched beautiful kingfishers hunt, I've seen wild Sloth Bears, and watched a leopard as it disappeared into the night, I've had close encounters with leeches, the largest wild cattle in the world - the Guar, an 8ft mugger croc and a troop of Elephants, and I've sat amongst a herd of the rarest goat in the world, but I am yet to meet the Purple Frog.

The last croak

Things are not looking good - our friends at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Valparai, where the frog was first discovered, told us that they had heard the frogs calling only a week ago but not a croak since. Yesterday our fate was sealed - one of the foundations staff discovered a pool of Purple Frog Tadpoles - a sure sign that the buisiness was over. The frogs had returned to their cozy underworlds until next year. The last bastion of seeing anything Purple frogish might have been the tadpoles themselves. Alas they are pretty much indistinguishable from most other tadpoles and won't develop any hint of their perculiar morphology for at least another month.

I may not have seen the Purple Frog but searching for it has taken me to some incredible places. I consider myself lucky to have had an awesome adventure with my good friends Kalyan, Dave and Mandana.

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